Health care reformers at every turn in Iowa

By Sara Westergaard
Iowa Presidential

Merrisa Brown / Iowa Presidential
Splotch of purple: Purple shirts dot the crowd as Iowa for Health Care supporters listen to Sen. Joe Lieberman speak at Tom Harkin's "Hear It from the Heartland" forum on Sept. 21, 2003.

When presidential candidates arrive at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, the first thing they're likely to see isn't local campaign officials or supporters.

Instead, a large ad prominently displayed in the airport asks candidates what they plan to do to make health care affordable and available to everyone.

The group responsible for advertisements and billboards all around the area is Iowa for Health Care, a group of more than 3,000 nurses, physicians and other voters here interested in health care. An additional 1,000 supporters are spread throughout the state, the group spokesperson said.

"Our strategy is to make sure health care is a candidate's number one priority," said Stephanie Mueller, communications director of Iowa for Health Care.

The group brings together people from a variety of different backgrounds with the goal of making health care issues more prevalent in campaigns and giving voters the information they need to make their own informed decisions, she said.

Clad in purple shirts with stethoscopes around their necks, representatives of Iowa for Health Care are hard to miss at political events. They are likely to show up at any and every political event around the state from the Hear it From the Heartland forums hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) in Cedar Rapids to retired Gen. Wesley Clark's visit to the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City.

"We try to be at about every event," said Mueller. "It's hard not to notice us."

Their time and energy are paying off.

"Their effort has made health care high profile for these campaigns," said David Redlawsk, assistant professor of political science at The University of Iowa. "All of the candidates have had to do something. Not all have a health care plan as such, but they've had to respond."

The group is using Iowa's status as the first in the nation primary event to establish their cause, and the demographic make-up in Iowa may also help them.

"It's not surprising that candidates are responding in Iowa because of Iowa's older population," said Redlawsk. "The audience is here, and the candidates respond to the audience."

Candidates, in turn, are taking advantage of the resources available from Iowa for Health Care, even calling to ask for nurses' opinions on certain issues and asking for nurses to appear at events. Since the group will not endorse a candidate, their appearances are strictly to give perspective on the health care industry, according to Mueller.

The Coralville-based group is also gathering supporters from local University of Iowa students who share an interest in the health sciences. Susan Lehmann, a clinical instructor in the UI College of Nursing, encourages her students to attend political events in order to better inform themselves on the politics of health care issues that may concern them.

"Many of these students have not been very politically awake," said Lehmann. "It teaches them what's going on in the real world."

Lisa Binegar, a UI junior majoring in nursing, has become involved with Iowa for Health Care through Lehmann's class. Last month, Binegar attended a Hear it From the Heartland forum with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and has recently developed a project focused on the uninsured and underinsured, with plans to initiate a letter writing campaign in the near future.

"It's a chance to become more involved," said Binegar. "You can see the influence and impact that Iowa for Health Care is having on the candidates. It's really neat to see such great efforts coming together."

Mueller agreed.

"This is the first time so many people are coming together like this," she said. "It shows that more and more Iowans and Americans are feeling the effects, and it's a sign that things are going to change."

E-mail Sara Westergaard at [email protected].

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